Bears 2017 Free Agents: Defense

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With the season finally over, it’s time to start looking at the 2017 season and what decisions the Bears are going to make before next year. The Bears have 27 free agents and before they start focusing on external options and the draft, they need to figure out who they want to bring back from this year’s roster.

I’ve already covered the offensive free agents and I’ll break down the decisions I’d make on the Bears defensive free agents.

Bears Free Agents: Defense

Unrestricted

OLB Sam Acho – I like Acho as a reserve pass rusher and special teams player. By all accounts, he’s also a solid presence in the locker room, sets a good example for younger players, and gives it his all on the field. He’s just not a first division player.

Acho has gotten plenty of snaps the last two years with all the injuries to Pernell McPhee and Leonard Floyd, but he’s not an impact pass rusher. In 13 starts over the last two seasons, Acho has just one sack.

There is a limit to how much hard work and good effort can impact a team. Acho seems like a great guy, but if the Bears are going to become a competitive team they need to upgrade their talent level wherever they can.

If Acho was still on his rookie deal, then it might make more sense to bring him back. Unfortunately, he’s 28 years old and a minimum contract for Acho is going to cost right around a million per season.

It’s hard to quantify effort level, locker room presence, and similar intangibles, but ideally a player who brings those skills to the locker room can also add some production on the field. At his age, Acho has already reached his peak as a player and the Bears could use a player with more upside at the backup pass rusher position.

Verdict: Let him go

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S Chris Prosinski – Bears fan were relieved when the team finally cut safety Chris Conte, until they signed his older, slower cousin Chris Prosinski. It’s a testament to how bad the Bears are at safety that Prosinski actually started six games for them the last two seasons.

To his credit, Prosinski played hard when on the field and actually made a couple nice plays over the last two years. There weren’t even close to enough good plays to cancel out all the ones he missed, but at least he gave it his all.

It’s time for the Bears to find some safeties that are actually good and not just guys that can be lauded for their effort level. I wish Prosinski the best in the job he’s most qualified for… coaching high school football.

Verdict: Let him go

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DE Cornelius Washington – I’ve been talking Washington up for the last three seasons, so my verdict is obvious to anyone’s who has read my posts consistently. I think he has the potential to be an impact 5-technique and he showed flashes of it this season now that he’s finally healthy.

Of course, just one year of staying healthy is not a sign of future health as the Bears found out with Zach Miller this year, but like Miller, Washington is a really good player when on the field. He has the strength to set the edge verse the run and enough quickness to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Washington’s standard stats weren’t that impressive with just two sacks and 20 tackles, but his per snap pressure stats were in the top 20% in the league among five-tech defensive ends. A few injury-ravaged years may have sapped some of Washington’s athleticism but he was an elite athlete coming out of college with 4.43 speed at 265 pounds.

He proved that most of the athleticism was still there this year and he’s developed into an impact player on special teams as well. Unfortunately, he’s going into his fifth season in the league so his minimum contract is similar to Acho’s. The difference is that he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet and could still be an impact player for the Bears.

A million per year is a steep price for a player with three sacks in four years, but Washington still has the potential for more and is already an impact special teams player. The Bears have some depth on the defensive line (Bullard, Unrein), so they don’t necessarily need to keep Washington in 2017 but I still think he’s going to develop into an impact player, so I hope they do.

Verdict: Keep him

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DE CJ Wilson – A late season signing, who ended up being one of the Bears most productive players the last few weeks of the season. Wilson has been a journeyman the last few years but has played well in his last few stops.

He’s only started two games the last two seasons but had a sack in each start. Wilson seems like he’s been around forever but is only 29 and has been a consistently productive and versatile defensive lineman.

Wilson’s per game grades are above-average according to PFF, but for some reason, he can’t seem to stick on anyone’s roster. Maybe there is some locker room or personality issues because he’s played well when given a chance the last three seasons. He probably won’t be back on the Bears roster next year, but they should keep him in mind if they have injury issues again.

Verdict: Let him go (but keep his phone number)

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CB Johnthan Banks – Tall corner (6’2) who the Bears signed late in the season and didn’t get a chance to play until week 16. It’s surprising that Banks was even available on the waiver wire after the former 2nd round pick had seven interceptions in his first two seasons in the league (2013-2014) with the Bucs.

Banks looked like one of the best young corners in football early in his career, but he was a casualty of a regime change in Tampa and his perceived value took a hit after being released last year. He still has elite size and is just two years removed from four picks, 50 tackles, 10 pass defenses, and a pick-six in 2014, his second year in the league.

The Bears have been searching for a tall corner for the last two seasons and Banks just turned 27, so should still have plenty of good football left. The fact that he was available for a minimum deal is slightly troubling, but that also means it won’t cost much to keep him around.

There is a shortage of competent tall corners in the NFL and the fact that Banks was one just two years ago is probably enough reason to give him a shot to win a job in training camp. If Banks can find his old form again, then the Bears could have a steal… and if not it won’t cost them much to find out.

Banks was carted off the field in week 17 with an ankle injury and his health and availability could determine whether the Bears bring him back in 2017.

Verdict: Keep him (why not?)

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CB Brandon Boykin – The Bears signed Boykin last offseason as secondary depth and a potential starter in the slot, but he suffered a pectoral injury on the 2nd day of training camp and was placed on injured reserve.

A former 4th round pick in 2012, Boykin was one of the best slot corners in the league in 2013 with the highest slot grade according to Pro Football Focus. In 2014, when Chip Kelly took over as the Eagles coach, Boykin was surprisingly benched for most of the season and then joined the Steelers in 2015, where he had problems with head coach Mike Tomlin as well.

Despite six interceptions and 17 pass defenses in 2013, Boykin couldn’t earn a starting gig in 2014 or 2015. He signed with the Bears late in the offseason last year and was expected to compete for the starting slot corner position before his season-ending injury.

Boykin is undersized (5’9, 183) but has excellent ball skills which is a trait the Bears desperately need right now. Unfortunately, slot corner is also their deepest position in the secondary but a combination of Boykin, Callahan, and LeBlanc could be one of the better slot corner groups in the league

With Callahan and LeBlance expected to compete for the starting job, the Bears may not want to invest any cap space in Boykin with greater needs on the outside and at safety. Though with teams running more four receiver sets than ever, the Bears may want to boost their sub-package sets with a skilled corner like Boykin.

After missing 2016 with an injury, Boykin won’t cost much and he’d be ideal insurance if Callahan gets hurt again or the Bears aren’t able to add enough impact corners in free agency or the draft.

Verdict: Keep him (if he’s willing to accept a minimum deal)

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Restricted

LB Christian Jones – Coming into the 2014 draft, Jones was considered a lock for an early day two pick. He had just finished a dominant season at outside linebacker for the national champion Seminoles and was scouted as a scheme versatile linebacker with ideal size, good speed, and the power to be an impact run stopper.

Jones ended up dropping out of the draft completely, due to a failed drug test at the combine that wasn’t made public until months later. The Bears won a bidding war with the Jags for Jones as a priority undrafted free agent, which seemed like a steal at the time.

His rookie year reinforced the notion that the Bears money was well spent. He started five games, had 41 tackles, and looked like a potential impact player as the weakside OLB in the Bears 4-3 scheme.

Then in 2015, the Bears brought in new management, a new coaching staff, switched to a new defensive scheme and Jones was suddenly on the roster bubble. There might not be a player on the roster who has gone through as dramatic of a role change as Jones in the last few years.

He went from 5-star college recruit, to a stud linebacker on a national championship team, to a starting outside linebacker on the Bears as a rookie, and then to the bottom of the Bears roster as maybe a special teams contributor.

Jones could have quit on the Bears at that point with more than enough potential to be picked up by another NFL team, but he focused on excelling at special teams and adding value wherever he could. He barely hung on to a roster spot in 2015 but started to rebuild his value this season.

Jones was a key member of the Bears special teams unit in 2016 with the third highest coverage grade behind Sherrick McManus and Josh Bellamy. He also learned to play both inside and outside linebacker in a new scheme and graded out positively at both positions in a reserve role.

He still has the size (6’4, 240) and speed (4.58) to be an impact player in multiple roles for the Bears, would be owed about half of Acho’s minimum salary, and still has plenty of potential left at just 25 years old. Jones hasn’t lost the physical traits that made him a projected early draft pick a few years ago and now has the maturity to do whatever it takes to add value to the team.

Losing Acho would be a tough loss in the locker room, but Jones has shown the ability and maturity to take over his role as a leader on the special teams unit with the added bonus that he could still develop into an impact player at either inside or outside linebacker.

Verdict: Keep him

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DB Demontre Hurst – Has bounced between the Bears active roster and the practice squad the last three years, but has made plays when given a chance. Hurst has two interceptions and three pass defenses in just four career starts.

He also has the versatility to play both corner and safety, while contributing on special teams. The downside is that Hurst is small even for corner standards (5’9, 175) and the Bears shouldn’t keep four sub 5’10 corners (Callahan, LeBlanc, Boykin, Hurst).

It may come down to Hurst verse Boykin and if that’s the case the Bears should choose the more experienced corner with proven ball skills in Boykin. Hurst’s best chance of making the roster may be a full-time switch to safety, where he has more potential than Prosinski (who doesn’t) and is more reliable than Jones-Quartey or Bush.

I don’t think the Bears are as high on Hurst as I am, considering they have released him three times in the last two seasons. With the Bears looking to add multiple secondary options this offseason, Hurst’s days on the team are probably numbered but he has bounced back from being released multiple times already and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hurst is on the Bears active roster at some point in 2017.

Verdict: Let him go (but keep him on speed-dial)

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Exclusive Rights Free Agents:

A player who has been on an active NFL roster for less than two full seasons and can only negotiate with their current team as long as that team offers at least a minimum qualifying offer.

With only a minimum contract offer necessary to keep the players below, they are all but locks to be back in 2017 if the Bears still want them.

CB Bryce Callahan -Arguably the Bears best cornerback in 2016 when on the field., The problem is that he’s missed 12 games in the last two seasons with a variety of minor ailments.

I’ve been a huge Callahan fan since before the Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He hasn’t disappointed with positive grades against both the run and the pass so far.  He’s undersized (5’10, 184) but has elite athleticism (4.,37 40-time, 43″ vertical, 11′ broad jump) and uses it to play bigger than his measurements.

Callahan makes up for his small stature with both his athleticism and an aggressive playing style. He attacks ball-carriers with abandon and has been effective snuffing out screens and passes in the flat. The problem is that his aggressiveness has lead to multiple injuries.

If healthy, Callahan can give the Bears a much needed play-making corner. He’s shown a knack for high-pointing the ball and getting his hands in receiver’s catch windows. Callahan also has above-average ball skills with 20 college interceptions.

I don’t have access to Callahan’s medicals, so have no idea what his long-term health prognosis is but I do have access to his game tape and he was the Bears best corner this year when on the field. As an ERFA, it won’t cost much at all to keep Callahan and it would make no sense to let him go unless the Bears are sure that he won’t be able to stay healthy.

Verdict: Keep him (and extend him if possible)

ILB Danny Mason – Potential special teams contributor who was signed by the Broncos back when John Fox was their coach. Fox brought Mason over to the Bears, where he’s lingered on the practice squad the last two seasons.

Mason is undersized for an inside linebacker and lacks long-term upside. The former Arena League player could be a useful special teams player but doesn’t add much (any) value on defense. The Bears should be able to do better than Mason on special teams. Preferably they can find a useful gunner who can also contribute on defense.

Verdict: Let him go

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